Blessed with Second Chance, Factory Alum Brent Warren Gains Law Degree, Aspires To Help Youth Athletes
Brent Warren wakes up every morning, grateful of where this strange, scary and wonderful life has taken him. Yet, there are times he wonders, “What if?”
“What if my heart had been normal like everyone else and I didn’t need open-heart surgery?”
“What if everything that I thought I was supposed to do in my life, like play baseball, came true?”
Brent’s journey was supposed to be “all baseball” according to his father, Chris. There was no doubt in Brent’s mind that he would ascend from the amateur ranks to the pros, but it did not happen that way.
As a child, Brent was very active in sports, seemingly never being able to sit, or sleep for longer than a few hours a night, so he was nicknamed “Sparkplug”, and as he got older, shortened to “Sparky”, growing up playing the game he loved. Performing well at a Baseball Factory event in Iowa, Brent was selected for the 2007 All-America Pre-Season Tournament. As he prepared for the event, a routine physical changed everything.
“I felt like something was wrong with my heart, but obviously didn’t know to what extent,” Brent remembers.
Chris delivered the news, asking his son to sit down as there was indeed something very seriously wrong.
“From then on, I would say I didn’t even process everything until like eight years later,” Brent said. “For a while there, it was, “what do we need to do to make sure I’m healthy and get to live my life?” At that moment, baseball goes out the window because you wonder if you will be alive the next day.”
It was revealed to the Warren Family that Brent had a congenital heart condition. And in that moment, everything he had worked and dreamed for seemed to be shattered in a million pieces.
Doctors determined the next step would be for Brent to undergo open-heart surgery. The family traveled to Minnesota to have the surgery done at the Mayo Clinic where a successful aortic bypass was performed on December 21, 2006, as he spent four days in the hospital recovering.
Prior to the surgery, Brent was told he may never be able to play baseball again. At the time of the first writing about Brent, he held hope, but wasn’t 100% certain he’d step between the white lines again, telling Baseball Factory at the time, “I’m not sure if I will play again. The feeling to step onto the field again would be indescribable. The doctors said that being so young, it is easier for me to heal from a surgery like this.”
Reflecting back on the situation, there were two avenues of thought, Brent explained, “if they had to suture the valves in my heart, there was a chance I could play again. But if they had to put in a mechanical valve, then I wouldn’t have played again.”
The family met Dr. Thoralf Sundt, (now the head thoracic and cardiac surgeon at Mass General in Boston, Mass), who performed the successful surgery, providing an optimistic outlook, revealing that post-surgery, there was indeed a chance Brent could continue playing the game he loved. After a three-month waiting period to see if everything held, he was cleared. Life could finally return to normal.
“I wasn’t too scared of the surgery,” Brent said. “It was the support system around me; my parents and having Dr. Sundt along the way. He’s the man. It was so easy to put my trust in him that this guy knows what he’s doing. For me, I just wanted to hear what needed to be done and then, let’s get it done.”
Baseball had taken a backseat and in its absence, life came into focus and matured Brent immediately.
“I loved playing baseball and before the heart surgery, I was a pretty arrogant kid as sometimes young guys are. But something like that puts life into perspective and is exceptionally humbling.”
After having open-heart surgery, the simplest of things like getting out of bed in the morning proved to be the most difficult. It was as if he had to start all over and fully rebuild himself.
It started simply with his Dad walking with him around the neighborhood, and progressed to doing cardio rehab with hand bikes in what he called “the 85-year-old man workout” for a few weeks. Despite being cleared, it was harder than expected and set Brent back, strength-wise, never fully regaining everything he had lost until as recently as two years ago.
“I wore a chest protector for years… it’s tough to gauge strength when you’re going through something like that because you don’t know what normal is. But it took quite a while for me to get my strength back.”
After being cleared to resume baseball activities at Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, IA, he was a two-time First-Team All-State Baseball player. It was around this time that the possibility of being drafted was becoming real.
On the first day of the 2008 draft however, teams called, scared off by the medicals that were deemed too dangerous and Brent was not selected. On the second day, Brent was given the opportunity, selected in the 27th round by the Oakland Athletics.
“I definitely considered it, I mean what 18-year-old kid doesn’t want to be drafted? But being a Midwest kid, I went to the College World Series almost every summer as a little kid, so my goal was to play college baseball.”
Brent made good on that dream, playing collegiately at Oregon State, seeing action in nine games as a freshman with the Beavers in 2009 with a double and three RBI and 22 games as a sophomore where he collected five hits in 22 at-bats. Brent spent some of his youth in Oregon, so, heading back to the Northwest for him felt like home.
“The school was great, the coaching staff was great. Coach (Pat) Casey has to be up there as one of the best coaches of all time. It was fun playing at a level like that with such talented guys.”
During this joyous time, Brent admitted that he lost the reason why he loved the game, so much so that he forgot how to play. “I lost my swing, there was a while there where I couldn’t hit a ball out of the infield,” Brent remembers.
After two years, Brent transferred to Azusa Pacific University in California, where he said he had a moment he felt he was again playing at a high level during a surprise visit from his Dad.
“I was 4-for-4 with two triples, a homer and a double, and I think from that point until I graduated, I hit above .330 the rest of my career where before, I was struggling to hit .200. I think that was the first moment where I enjoyed myself again and remembering to just play and enjoy my time on the field.”
“He had lost how to play the game and what baseball meant to him,” Chris said. “From a father’s perspective, he was very confused as to what he was doing. He had to find a place where he could get his mind back and find out what he was really doing, and Azusa Pacific was that place for him. Once he figured out why he was playing the game again, everything clicked.”
At Azusa, Brent found himself again with a supportive group of friends and an incredible coaching staff that allowed him to play baseball the way he intended; by having fun.
“Coach (Paul) Svagdis and APU are really special to me. He took me in on a whim, when he had no reason to give me a scholarship there. He trusted me and I owe a lot to him. I have nothing but love and respect for the program.”
As his baseball career wound down at Azusa, he turned his attention to the next chapter of his life. He decided to pursue a law degree and as we talked recently, would at some point like to represent players, because he knows the agency world is pretty brutal.
“I feel that a guy like myself could bring a good perspective to young kids, reach their goals,” Brent said. “I understand what it’s like to have goals and get to a certain level and ultimately, it would be a dream for me to be part of a young man’s life and help them reach their goals both on and off the field.”
The motivation to continue driving forward went beyond the baseball diamond and straight into the real world where, given his second chance at life, he’s excelled and has become more successful than both he and his family could have ever imagined. Brent pursued his law degree at Creighton University and earlier this month, walked across the stage, doctoral degree in hand, receiving his hood.
“I was crying in the stands,” Chris admits. “The reason I was crying was because of the difference between holding your son in ICU who has 200 tubes coming out of him and not knowing if he’s going to live to see another day to watching him become a doctor and see him get his degree. That’s pretty awesome. Yes, baseball is special, but as a parent, I did lose perspective at one point in the whole thing. But seeing him graduate put everything in perspective. Baseball is just a game, it’s what the kids play. Brent was given a gift and that gift was taken away. But ultimately, he got to enjoy it the way he wanted to. Brent graduating was the pinnacle of achieving and far more of an accolade as to anything he ever did on the baseball field.”
The “What if’s” still occur from time to time, but are quickly replaced with realities of new achievements being created, something no one thought would have been possible 10 years ago as he lay on an operating table with his life in the balance.
“I think it’s impossible not to. I don’t think I’m any different than anyone else in that aspect,” Brent said. “As you grow and age as a human being, there’s certain things you look back on and you throw out the “What if’s” and in my case, mine was a little more severe at an early age.”
Brent says that for him, the start of spring training is always the most difficult. Where his mind races the most.
“I see a bunch of guys I played with, that are playing in the bigs and I am super happy for them all, they’re all great guys (Gerrit Cole, Eric Hosmer and Sonny Gray) but it was tough for a bit, but at the same time, everything has really worked out for me.”
After going through that frightening time in his life, Brent now devotes his efforts into making sure parents and their children who love playing sports gets screened for a potential pre-existing heart condition. He has the hope of starting an outreach to raise awareness about children who play sports receiving an EKG (electrocardiogram) so that they know there are no hidden issues lurking that could cost someone’s life.
“It’s pretty simple,” Brent explains, “..the cost of receiving an EKG versus risk losing your life or losing the life of your child seems to be an easy choice.”
Brent turned his experience into a second chance to leave a mark in his time on Earth. Looking back on the game he loves, he has a key piece of advice for players that can also connect to everyday life.
“Life is precious. I know what it’s like when you tell kids all the clichés; enjoy the game, you’re only young once, you only get to play this for a short time. One of the things I am most proud of myself is that I understood that there is a very small window to play this game. What I want kids to know is to just enjoy it. Work your butt off, play as hard as you can, but just try to have a good time, because ultimately, it’s just a game. If I ever had the opportunity to communicate that to players, I truly feel that is the most important things I could share with someone.”